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Brook Hensopiter

Socorro

Socorro was a ratty little town that dangled off the highway the way a broken leg hangs off a dog that's been hit by a car. It was mostly dirt, sand, red grass, and squat cactus peppered with little brown houses that might as well have been ovens. Jen and I had planned a driving trip to see some places where there'd been UFO sightings in New Mexico, but we'd picked up her father, Mike, and a college friend named Penny along the way, so it wasn't quite the trip we'd planned. Mike was short and bristly and Penny was lanky, long-haired, and angry about men. Fortunately, both Mike and I were near fifty, him on the top side, me on the other, so we weren't quite men in Penny's sense of the word.

We'd been through Roswell and Corona, and the next place to see was Socorro, because of the alien craft that landed there in 1964. Jen was keeping a trip diary on her notebook computer, a tiny Compaq she used to link up to e-mail services when we stopped overnight, and she had been writing notes to herself about Socorro all afternoon.

"First we find the site," she said, "then we go after Lonnie Zamora and Sergeant Chavez. Everybody O.K. with that?"

"They sound like a couple of real dweebers," Penny said. "What's their deal, anyway?"

"Zamora saw the spaceship and Chavez came in later and saw the traces--burning bushes and all that," Jen said. "It's a big deal because the Air Force didn't write it off."

"Typical," Penny said.

We found the spot out of town where the deputy had seen the UFO. That was pretty easy. The UFO had supposedly landed there in this gully, and these little men were standing around it, and then when Zamora got out of his car or something the men got back in the ship and blasted off. The town had the spot marked with a big sign. But when we tried to find the Zamora himself, that wasn't so easy. Everybody we talked to had a different idea of where he lived. In fact, some people had different ideas of who he was, which made tracking him difficult. What we did was cruise up and down the dusty, chuck-hole filled roads, sliding in and out of stringy subdivisions. We knocked on a few doors and finally ran into some people having a chicken picnic in the dirty sand that was their front yard. They invited us to join them, but we declined, though it looked to me like Penny was interested.

"We're trying to find the guy who saw the UFO," Jen said to an older, skinny man with a rubber-like complexion and a bum leg that seemed to point toward the other leg whenever he tried to walk. The Charlton Heston thing.

"Everybody's seen them," the guy said. "They're all over the place. You only have to turn around and you see one."

"Have you seen any?" Jen said.

"Well, I haven't," he said. "Not me, personally. But everybody else I know has."

"I hear that," Penny said. "Lot of young bright men seeing UFOs every day."

"We're looking for Lonnie Zamora," Jen said. "Or Chavez, the state cop. You know them?"

"There's a cop lives around the corner there," the guy said waving off to one side. "But he's new, just got here in town last year. He's from Anchorage, I think. May be an Eskimo, or have some Eskimo blood. That's what I heard, anyway."

The guy was standing knock-kneed in his front yard holding a quarter chicken by the end of the drumstick. One bite of chicken about halfway down the leg was already gone. He was sort of shaking this chicken at us as a kind of invitation. His wife and their kids, all of whom seemed extraordinarily tiny, much tinier than they ought to have been, almost like circus tiny--the wife was maybe four and a half feet tall, the kids were smaller--were back by the folding table on top of which was a fat pitcher of blue Hawaiian Punch. I figured it had to be Hawaiian Punch or Kool-Aid because it was blue, but these folks looks like the Hawaiin Punch crowd. The kids were slurping this stuff out of giant lock-top plastic glasses that had elaborate roller-coaster straws coming out of them.

On the card table there was a boombox that plugged into an orange extension cord that slid back across the dirt, up over the porch rail, and into the front door that was cocked open a little. They had old-fashioned ballroom music swinging out of the boombox, dance music, and both the elders--him tall and skinny and her small as a medium-size dog up on its hind legs--were swaying a little in time with the tunes, threatening to dance in the driveway. We waived as Mike dropped the car back into gear and let us roll away.

"That poor woman got stuck and stuck hard," Penny said, shaking her head.

Apparently the town council had tried to set up a tourist deal in Socorro like the one in Roswell, but it hadn't worked out. They had a Spaceship Cleaners, a Fourth Dimension Cafe, and, on the way out of town, a homemade fast food place called Out of This World, but that was about it for UFO-marketing. O-O-T-W, as its neon said, looked like a Dairy Queen that'd been caught between a couple of giant pieplates and then rolled in car aerials and whip antennas covered with SuperStik. The parking lot was spray painted a remarkable golf-grass green. We stopped in the drive-though and Penny got their specialty, a Littlegreenmanburger. She told Jen she didn't know whether to eat it or smack it so hard it blistered.

. . . .

It was turning chilly when we pulled out of the lot. Mike was ready to pack it in, find a local motel, but Jen wanted to visit the UFO Museum, so we drove two blocks and parked nose in at the storefront museum.

Inside a retired postal worker from Cleveland did his best to explain the Philadelphia Experiment--those cables wrapped around that ship, the space in the water where the ship had been, anti-matter machines, all of that. He had wiry hair and wore his jeans nipple-high, and he was eager to please--a volunteer, he explained, at the museum. He was reluctant to let us browse without instruction. The place was the size of a shoe shop, three rooms, the largest arranged around a long folding display board with photos, texts, crummy sketches of flying saucers pinned to it. In a side chamber there was a four-foot high wooden alien with teardrop eyes and several coats of Testor's Alien Lumina Silver. We listened to the retiree tell us about the rash of sightings in 1947 and about how the Army Air Corps had clammed up about the Roswell incident. He was quick to put the kibosh on the Air Force's new bonehead spy balloon explanation of the original coverup, too. There were snapshots of the Brazel ranch where the Corona UFO crashed, but the property looked like nothing special, just dirt, like the rest of New Mexico.

"You see," the guy said. "In 1947 there were sightings all over this country--way up in Washington and Oregon, all the way down here, over to Alabama, up toward Minnesota, in New York state--they were everywhere. Strange lights, abductions, interactions, exchanges of fluids--I mean priests, nurses, even military officers reported stuff. For several weeks in the summer of 1947 this went on and then it suddenly stopped."

At that, the retiree did a deliberate pause, a long pause, nodding, watching us with a shrewd smile.

"It stopped," he repeated. "What does that tell you? What does that say? Think about it. It says they came for a reason. It says they got what they wanted and they left." He slapped his hands together for emphasis. "Bam!" he said. "You have to keep up with these deals, or you miss everything. You have to think back to what happened in 1947. Who was born that year? What world historical events were precipitated by incidents that occurred then? What was invented in the year 1947? These kinds of things are the kinds of things you have to think about when you're trying to keep an eye on the big picture. Where there's smoke, there's fire--that's all we are saying."

"Amen," Jen said. "But what about that magic aluminum foil, you know? And where are the tiny purple I-beams?"

"Oh, a TV watcher, huh?" he said, shaking his head. "Well, they weren't purple, they were magenta, and where do you think? Government's got all that. Maybe Groom Lake, Area 51--you know Area 51?"

"Where some aliens were held captive, right?" she said. "But somebody discovered there really wasn't any Area 51, it was all a hoax."

He smiled and took a look at his black shoes. "Oh, there's an Area 51, all right. And a Hangar 9. There wasn't any Hangar 54, maybe that's what you're think about, that's more TV stuff, but there were Rainbow, Phoenix, and Montauk projects. And there's S4, MJ-12, Zeta-Reticula, and there are underground hangars at Kelly--there's a lot out here. If you're interested, check into Groom Lake, check out the Vegas airport sometime, the white jets without markings that go into the desert at night." He thumped his temple. "Don't let 'em confuse you."

Penny's eyebrows were doing Groucho moves. She pointed out toward the lobby and mouthed that she'd be waiting for us. Mike slipped off with her, leaving me and Jen to listen to the Socorro story, how the deputy had been driving along, minding his own business, kind of a pleasant evening, enjoying himself after work when he'd seen this craft in a ravine just outside of town--the full story. While he was talking I read the actual front page of the Roswell newspaper the day the Army put out the story that it had recovered a saucer. I knew the story, but seeing the paper, yellowed and brittle and hiding under glass, gave me a new sense of that time, made it seem as if the world was a toy world back then. The way the story sounded, the people it talked about and quoted, what they said, how they said it, even the people you could imagine reading the paper--they must've been like kids in adult bodies running things. That was a little eerie.

The museum was strange in the same way. It was childish, it looked like a sixth-grade science show. But there was something edgy and nagging about the pencil drawings and the snapshots with their rippled edges and the Xeroxes of typewritten accounts, something that made you uneasy--why was this enterprise still so ragtag after all these years? I stared at sketches supposedly done by the medical examiner during the autopsies of the Corona aliens, at a photo of the supposed Soccoro deputy pointing at the place where he'd seen the aliens--there was a dotted marker line showing the path of the departing spacecraft--and I began to think that in spite of, or maybe because of, the farfetched and unconvincing displays, the UFO Museum was entirely disturbing.

About then the retiree rubbed his hands together and looked around, as if scanning for something else to tell us. "I guess that gives you a start on it, huh?" he said. "Why not kind of meander around and get your own sense of the place now that I've introduced you? That be O.K.?"

"That's great, thanks," Jen said.

When he was gone I said, "I envy him--living here, volunteering here, explaining everything to the tourists."

"Yeah," she said. "Cool job."

"Like the details of Corona, or the Philadelphia Experiment, or Groom Lake. Wouldn't it be great to go home every night and read new stories, watch bad video copies, go through new evidence compiled and distributed by the Society for Recognition of the Adaptations of Alien Life Forms?"

"S-R-A-A-L-F," she said.

"Yeah," I said. "Or just sit out on a dusty porch in the middle of nowhere and stare at the saucer filled sky."

"You're a wonderful person, Del," Jen said.

"Well he's like those guys who spend twenty years building railroads in their basements, who really don't do anything but play with their trains. They live perfect lives, devoted to love."

"Oh, baby," Jen said, doing a fifties deal. "Come to me, baby." She gave me a playful and sexy hug.

I watched as the little guy stood at the front window for a minute talking to another volunteer, then he cornered three new tourists--husband and wife with child. The retiree took them on, brought them into the main room and then to one of the side spaces where he'd originally taken us. I heard him start his speech about the anti-matter machine, how even he didn't quite understand it, but he would try to explain it to them if they could picture this massive World War II battleship wrapped in miles of thick steel cable--cable as thick as your arm!--the ship tossing in the stormy ocean waves on a bleak, wintry night, rain coming in visible sheets, and then, suddenly, without warning, in a wash of lightning the ship vanishes, leaving an indentation in the water, a footprint in the shape of its great hull.

. . . .

"I can drive," Penny said. We'd finished the museum and were climbing back into the car. It was beginning to get dark.

"If we stay here we can try to find Zamora tomorrow," Mike said. "I mean, get the story first hand."

"He's another guy who ain't ready for us," Penny said.

"You figure he ought to be standing out here on the highway?" Mike said.

"That'd be a start," Penny said.

"Dad," Jen said. "We're hitting the road."

So Penny took the driver's seat and we headed back down Highway 25 to the place where we could catch a state road to Arizona. In the dusk we could still see the mountains on either side of us, tall solid hulks criss-crossing the road up ahead. There was a big stream running down one side of the highway, silver, reflecting lights from the little cabins alongside it. Pretty soon we were higher into the mountains, and the cutoffs were smaller and the stream was gone and there weren't any houses, just a big, black hump squeezing the highway. We hadn't done much night driving and I was thinking that was too bad, because things seemed more comfortable in the car at night. The inside seemed a lot bigger. There was territory there between the riders, and the car was cooler and quieter. The road wasn't making so much noise, and the noise it did make was more soothing in darkness than daytime. Watching out the front window at the white lines edging the road and the yellow lines in its center, I had a vivid sense of riding on a seam, an edge between two voids, a track pointed somewhere, coming from somewhere, lit only by headlights. The big Lincoln seemed to shoot itself forward into that night. The few lights in the hills were glittering on the windshield. Headlights jiggled as they came toward us, and the reflectors embedded in the highway threw our brights back in our eyes.

The road was two-lane blacktop interrupted now and then by brand new sections of divided highway. These sections didn't make any sense, there wasn't a pattern to their appearance or disappearance. We'd drive a while and then suddenly there'd be a mile of divided highway, then back to blacktop. We passed a hut on the side of the road renting trailers, and our lights caught the taillights of all the trailers at once, making them look like a herd of small animals cowering there in the ditch alongside the highway.

Jen pulled out the Compaq and said, "I'm going to read your tarot. I got this program off the Net."

"I'd rather watch TV," I said. We'd been carrying Jen's handheld TV, a Casio the size of a Walkman with a two-and-a-half inch color LCD, but I hadn't seen it for a while. "Where is that TV, anyway? I want to check what's on."

"Maybe you could tune in some aliens," Penny said. "You know how those spaceships always gray out the screen?" She and Mike, in the front seat, giggled about that.

"It's in the trunk, probably," Jen said, cranking up the computer. "But wait'll you see this--Celtic cross, a couple other spreads, and it explains everything, so when you get the Death card, I can explain the hell out of it."

"Death is just another word for nothing left to lose," Penny said. "Death is never having to say you're sorry."

"Oh, Penny," Jen said. "You're always so negative." She ran the program and asked me to shuffle the cards by punching a couple of keys. "You can stop whenever you want to," she said.

"How do I know the cards are shuffling under there?" I said.

"You trust me," she said.

So I stopped and then she said, "O.K. Now you have to pick out your cards." The notebook had a trackball, which made picking out the cards difficult, but I got it done.

"Are you ready?" She moved the cursor to a button that said "Reveal" and clicked. The first card in the center of the cross rolled over. Death. I shook my head.

"That's great," Jen said. "Death's a really great card to get in that position. It's all about starting a new part of your life, putting the things of your past behind you and going forward, reaching out to conquer new challenges, stepping out of old, bad habits, leaving your worn clothes behind. It's a wonderful sign, really. It's about the best card you could possibly ever get in that position."

"Short of a letter bomb," Penny said.

"O.K.," Jen said. "I won't kid you. There is a downside. But it could be a lot worse. See, position is important. If it were up in the fourth house that would be a problem. I'd tell you that, too, I'd just come right out and tell you, but here, at the center of everything, it's a very, very good sign." She clicked on a button to bring up the explanation of the Death card. "See here," she said, pointing at the screen. "It says right here that 'the Death card represents the clearing of the old to usher in the new and, therefore, should be welcomed as a positive, cleansing, transformative force in our lives.'"

"Let's do it again," I said.

"What do you mean, do it again? You can't just do it again," she said.

"Give him another chance," Penny said.

"Let's shuffle and do it again," I said.

"Are you sure?" she said. "We'll lose this whole spread."

"That's the ticket," Penny said. She was watching us in the rearview, bobbing her head around to see me, then to see Jen.

So Jen clicked on the "Shuffle" button, and we went through the whole process again, dealing another set of ten cards. This time when she clicked on "Reveal" the first card that came up was the Devil.

"What is it?" Penny said.

"Progress," I said. "Satan."

Jen clicked the "Interpret" button and read parts of it out loud. "'The Devil represents hidden forces of negativity that constrain us and deceive us into thinking we're imprisoned by external forces,'" she said. "'There's a devil in each of us. He's like an inner force. He's an embodiment of our fears, addictions, and harmful impulses.'" She pointed to the screen picture of the card. "It says these two people chained at The Devil's feet are 'entranced with the paralyzing fear of his illusory power and therefore stand there and look numb.'"

"Dumb?" Penny said.

"Hush," Jen said. "But see, the chains hang loosely so they can break free of their hypnotic attachment if they really want to, if they have the will. That means you can, too."

"This is worse than last time," I said.

"Well, maybe," she said. "But there's a way it's better--a cleaner beginning, a solid ground against which to work."

"Why don't you go ahead and turn over the next card?" Penny said. "Take it one card at a time."

Jen clicked on the button to turn over the second card and the second card was Death.

"One of the most fruitful and positive cards in the deck," I said.

"Death?" Penny said, looking over her shoulder into the back seat. "Sorry, Del. I was rooting for you. Honest."

"Watch the road, will you?" I said.

"This is not good," Jen said. "I think maybe we want to move away from this spread."

The third card was the Hierophant. Jen said, "Let's just take a peek at what's here, not really taking this one seriously any more, but just to see--" She clicked through the rest of the cards. I had the Emperor in the recent past, the Moon and the Crown, the Wheel of Fortune in the future, and the other four cards were the Chariot, the Hanged Man, Judgment, and the Magician. "Now, this isn't really so bad," Jen said. "It looked a little iffy there at the beginning, but as it plays out, it's not so bad. I've seen worse than this."

"Yeah, I did one for Gary Gilmore that was worse," Penny said.

"I'll save it and we can look again later, O.K.?" Jen said. "You don't believe in this stuff anyway."

"I believe in everything," I said. "A little bit in everything."

Jen shut the computer down and slipped it back into the bag she had in the footwell on her side of the car.

"Penny," she said. "Where are we?"

"Thirty-one miles from Pie Town," Penny said.

"Is that all?" Jen said. "What are you doing? Eighty?"

"Something like that," Penny said.

Mike stirred and I realized he'd been asleep with his head pressed against the window glass. Penny waved a hand to hush us and Jen turned sideways in the seat, resting against the door on her side and running her feet across my lap into the door on my side.

"We stop there, O.K.?" she said.

Penny waved again.

Jen said, "I want to wake up in Pie Town. Just the idea is great. Maybe the idea is greater than actually doing it even. But I want to do it. I'm beginning to like this traveling stuff, this touring around and seeing stuff." She gave me a little kick. "Don't you like it?"

"Yes, I like it. I told you I liked it," I said.

"Could you guys whisper?" Penny said from the front. "The oldster is napping."

"I think it's worthy," Jen whispered.

Up in the front Penny sneezed a couple times and then looked up into the rearview to see if we were watching her.

Mike sighed, his head still against the window. "Why is everybody making so much noise?" he said.

"Maybe we should call ahead to Pie Town and see if we can get reservations," Jen said, tapping his shoulder.

"Why don't you?" Mike said. He slipped the cellular phone over the back of the seat.

"I guess we can't," Jen said. "We'd have to call information and get somebody and ask about motels--they're not having a Holiday Inn in Pie Town."

"So why are you asking me?" he said. He was still bent against the car door.

"Wake you up," Jen said.

"We'll just get something when we get there," Penny said. "It's not going to hurt if we don't call."

"Let me have the phone," I said. "I'm calling somebody."

"Here we go," Jen said.

"I don't have to if you don't want me to," I said.

"No, go ahead," she said.

"Go ahead," Mike said from the front seat.

"Maybe you should call that guy back at the museum," Penny said. "Maybe he's seen some spacecraft."

"Is that the nicest thing you could possibly think of to say?" Jen said.

"I'm sorry," Penny said.

Jen patted my arm. "Go ahead. Call anybody you want. It's a free country. I'll join our fellows up front, give you some privacy." Jen leaned forward over the back of the seat and put an arm around Penny and an arm around Mike. "So, what's up guys?" she said.

I dialed our number at home thinking I'd check for messages as a first step, but the radio waves got crossed up or something and I ended up connected to a guy on a Continental Airways flight from L.A. to New York who was trying to call his mother in Akron. I told him I'd never talked to anybody on an airplane telephone before and he said it was his first time using one, so we talked for a few minutes. I told him we'd been driving across New Mexico, that we'd been to Roswell and to the UFO Museum in Socorro, and that we were headed into a place called Pie Town. He told me he thought he'd seen a UFO once, down in Costa Rica, but he wasn't sure. He said that right then and there everything was clear as a bell at thirty thousand feet. He told me he always called his mom at odd times and that he had a sixth sense about how she was doing, and lots of times when he called it turned out to be precisely the right time, just when she needed him. It was the kind of thing that made him wonder, he said.

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